In the wake of recent shootings in school, children are very aware of such events in the world. Their understanding may be accurate or may be filtered and distorted in some way. The child could be very anxious or concerned. Here are some simple recommendations for talking with your child about these events.
1. Make it OKAY to talk to you. The child’s feelings and concerns are very serious to the child. Take your child’s concerns seriously. Don’t dismiss his or her feelings or think those feelings are silly or unwarranted. “You are pretty worried.” “Of course that bothers you.” “Isn’t it sad that happened?” “I’m glad you came to talk to me about it.” “I see you are worried, and it’s okay for us to talk about it.”
The best time to talk is at or after a meal, but not before bedtime.
Find out what the child knows or heard about recent events; often the information is incomplete or distorted through a child’s lens, so you can correct that.
2. Empathize with the child’s feeling. The child needs to know his or her sense of what is real and important is accepted by adults. Otherwise the message is to hide those feelings. So we can say, “You are really worried.” “You feel for those children.” “You wonder if it’s safe for you.”
3. Children at different ages have worries for themselves that are age appropriate.
Very young children wonder if they will be TAKEN CARE OF. If something happens to a parent, the child knows he or she cannot take care of himself or herself. So the child needs to hear how mother and father and grandparents and aunts and uncles, whoever is important in the child’s life, will be there to make sure the child is fed and cared for.
Children who are old enough to understand their vulnerability in the world, say ages 4 or 5 and above, also want to know they are SAFE and PROTECTED. Assure them you and their teachers are watching out for them, there are very few dangerous people, you have taught them to be careful about strangers, and they are to go to an adult immediately if they are worried about something. This entire conversation helps the child feel adults can be trusted and reliable.
Older children, say ages 9 or 10 and up, also can identify with the children who were harmed and can picture themselves in the same situation. So an additional message for them is to place the danger in context. For example, there are over 100,000 schools in the United States and only a few have had an incident in years; a pre-teen or teen can understand that context. A shooting is extremely unlikely.
4. Watch for signs the child needs to talk, such as nightmares or change in behavior or a wish to avoid school. Some children will not spontaneously open up about it, but will show concerns through play, such as in a made-up game, play with stuffed animals, play with clay, or art. You could also ask if the child feels safe in school.
5. Use language which is appropriate to the child’s age. A common mistake is talking “over the head” of the child by using words to which he or she cannot easily relate, such as “violence,” “mass shooting,” etc.
6. The child knows danger is a REALITY. Sometimes, bad things do happen. So validate the child’s awareness of the situation. Do not keep the TV on such that the story is rehashed for the child over and over. Schools are more secure than ever and these events are rare, but they receive tremendous coverage in the news. The fact that bad things happens is why
- We work on security in school.
- We teach children not to talk with strangers.
- We teach children to go to an adult when they have a concern.
- We teach children there are times you have to tell and not keep things a secret. We report bullying and we report children who threaten to hurt themselves or others.
7. Find out the safety plan for your school, such as signing in, security guards, locked doors. Knowing about these measures can help your child feel safer. Add to the plan by helping the child to be able to talk to the teacher or to connect with you quickly if need be.
8. You may have some religious or family ritual for these situations, such as doing a drawing or saying prayers. Having such routines gives children a way to work out feelings now and also for the future.
Overall, controlling your own level of reactivity – the intensity over your own worries – is important. Parents need to be a resource to their children and not show so much distress that the child is motivated to lessen the parent’s upset. Openly and sensitively talking with children usually calms their fears.
© Don Rosenberg, 2012